It’s a cold winter night, and something unusual is going on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A huge white tent is set up at the entrance, it’s pointed canopy suggesting a medieval military campaign, and limousines are spawning celebrities onto Fifth avenue in bunches. They shimmy up the grand staircase while the paparazzi scream out their names.
The occasion is the Metropolitan Museum’s costume gala, once a bastion of New York society that in recent years has been made over into something of a celebrity gang bang. Inside, a flashbulb blinks every few seconds somewhere in the Metropolitan’s cavernous lobby.
Quite apart from the flowers and the dresses and tuxedos and the bright faces, there is something thrilling about a public space that has been closed off to the public. It’s all champagne and slightly self conscious chatter; the people who are used to such events don’t want to act as though they are beyond being flustered by such a grand occasion, and the people who are a little flustered (like me) want to seem like they do this all the time.
There is an epoch mingling session before dinner. Maria Carey is introduced to Monica, Liv Tyler embraces Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barbara Walters primps her hair, which is strangely reminiscent of Rod Stewart (in fact she looks a lot like Rod Stewart) and chats with Henry Kissinger. Even if not everyone is beautiful, everyone is trying. Ian Glenn, currently playing opposite Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room, stands with Happiness director Todd Solondze and discusses whether their tuxedos, which Prada has graciously provided for the occasion, are on loan or if they get to keep them.
Amidst all this, and slightly above it, stands Claudia Schiffer. She’s wearing a gold evening dress, her long blond hair flowing down around her shoulders, her mouth lipsticked to transfixing perfection. In the dim flattering light her skin seems more than just perfect or smooth, but innocent. The slightly tainted innocence of a princess who spends most of her time covetously locked away in a castle tower, only to brought out on special occasions.
Standing beside her is David Copperfield, her boyfriend of six years. His dark bristly hair, though by no means at the Barbara Walters level of embalment, is nevertheless veering slightly in the direction of a bouffant, or at least a Caesar. The top of his head comes up to around Claudia’s shoulder. They don’t touch, but then neither do any of the couples.
Everyone is herded into the dining area and begins circling one of the fifty tables for ten, looking for their place cards. Claudia is seated on the opposite side of the table from David, and I keep and eye on them for signs of some transaction, perhaps a little good-bye touch, on the occasion of their being apart for the next hour or so.
But this is the last place for sincere intimacies; it’s a place to be guarded and beautiful and try not to blink when someone takes your picture. The couple are certainly very guarded; ever since they got together they’ve been pelted by same sort of rumors endured by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and John Travolta and Kelly Preston–that one or both of them is gay, that the relationship is a sham. In contemplating this bit of scandal there is only one real fact to consider, which is that they have been together for six years. Still, as this lovely princess, so much from another time it seems to me (especially her mouth, straight out of the Marquis de Sade), takes her seat, I find it intriguing that this small Jewish magician from Metuchen, New Jersey with a brow like Liam Gallagher, is the one and only man in her life.
It’s a hot summer day, and nothing unusual is going on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The steps are crowded with piqued tourists, squatting like pigeons and catching their breath. The entrance is thronged with visitors struggling through the humidity and clutching instamatics in their sweaty hands. I’m standing at the information booth waiting for Claudia, who duly arrives at the top of the steps and spends a moment looking this way and that before she sees me waving.
Her hair is up in a bun. She’s wearing Grey pants by Joseph, and a T-shirt with a unbuttoned shirt over it, and on her back is a black leather Bulgari backpack of surprising heft. Her watch is a monstrous silver Bulgari thing that you could probably read from twenty feet away. There isn’t so much as a smudge of make-up on her face, which I soon realize is a blessing, because it makes it each blush more apparent.
"It’s weird being here with all these people," she remarks. "I’m usually just here for events. But this is good. I don’t often get a chance to just look at the art."
Her accent is much flatter and less Germanic than I expected. "I’m trying hard to hide it," she says. "In Germany you learn English with a British accent, but I prefer the American. I’m here more often and it’s easier to pick up."
We stroll along, her elongated feet clip clopping on the marble floor in her Prada sandals, black Chinese leather. Her toe nails are painted a pale silver.
Like a thoroughbred, she seems every so slightly overbred, over trained. Her waist is, of course, slim and lovely, but it’s just a tiny bit too slim and lovely. She seems just a tiny bit underfed. Of course models are supposed to be underfed, that’s the point of models usually, their waify wraithiness, but Claudia has always had a more voluptuous quality to her; and it’s more than just her breasts. It’s her mouth. Her lips. Her shoulders. There is a kind of fullness to her. And watching her gangle along the museum’s marble hallways, my first thought is: Feed this girl!
We end up in a gallery full of 15th century prints from Northern Europe. The show is called Devotions and Diversions. I’ts all Jesus Bleeding on the cross and Mary Magdelan and so forth.
"This one is from Germany," she says in that peculiar accent, peering in at one of the prints. "Virgin with two angels," she mutters.
Claudia Schiffer is going through a transition, a kind of super model mid-life crisis. She’s twenty eight. And the purpose of this interview, besides being a sort of bribe to Claudia so she will pose for some sexy photographs, is to talk about her new direction.
People are not generally that interested in what a model has to say. But an actress is a different story. Words are party of their medium. The movie making process has mythology that photo shoots wont ever match, though if there was ever a moment when modeling seemed to rival Hollywood it was those halcyon days when everything Claudia and Cindy and Naomi, had their every move documented in the newspapers. But the super model era is over and now Claudia is trying to become an actress. In making the transition from one medium to the other, Claudia is in a predicament not unlike those old silent film stars who had to make the switch to the Talkies. Looks, and a certain kind of expressiveness (or in the case of Claudia, a certain sultry blankness or Teutonic viciousness) will no longer do.
We peruse the prints and have a quiet chat against the backdrop of the museum murmur.
She’s just seen Eyes Wide Shut and is a pensive, psychosexual mood.
"It’s full of intrigues, mind games, psychological things, which I find interesting."
She sees a lot of scripts, but turns down every part that stipulates that she has to be nude. In Friends and Lovers, in which she plays Robert Downey Jr.’s wife, they asked her to take her top off, but she refused.
"I think you can be very sexy without showing everything," she says. "I don’t want to do nude scenes, but I’d do things that are erotic and provocative.
We’re standing in front of Madonna and Child. Unlike her super model colleague, Cindy Crawford (whose first movie was a high profile movie and a high profile flop), she has opted to take supporting parts in small indie movies.
"I don’t want to start with a big Hollywood production. I want to work with young creative people where we can experiment without really being on the spot." She pauses. "I mean, I’m already on the spot."
I mention her working with Abel Ferrara, the scuzz-core New York auteur who gave the world The Bad Lieutenant. Claudia blushes at the very mention of that movie.
"My favorite scene was when Harvey Kietel is naked in the church. And that scene where he is jerking off in front of the two girls in the car. That was his niece he was jerking off in front of! And apparently the whole scene was his idea." She seems to be a big Harvey Kietel fan. It occurs to me that maybe she goes for small, fierce looking guys.
She speaks with a sort of touching eagerness of her part in an upcoming indie movie.
"I play a married woman who has an affair on her husband," she says. "But you are never sure until the end if I’m good or if I’m bad. It’s never clear if the affair is justified by the marriage he was having."
And does she discuss parts like this with her boyfriend?
"A little, but not in too much detail. I discuss it mostly with my agent. I saw this script and I said, ‘I would love to be this person.’ It’s part requires me to walk a fine line. It’s up to the audience to decide what they think of me. "
When Claudia Schiffer was seventeen she went dancing at a disco in Dusseldorf called "Checkers" ("it’s still there," she marvels) when a man came up to her and offered that highly original pick-up line, "Are you a model?"
No, she wasn’t. He got her number. And…
"He called my parents the next day," she says. I very much enjoy this detail, because behind the sexiness of her appearance there has always been a faint aura of a controlling, almost virginal goodie goodie, and it makes sense that within twenty four hours of putting the moves on her at disco some guy should be on the phone with her parents talking business.
She grew up in Rhineberg, a small town near Dusseldorf, in the same house her father had grown up in. Her family was "a big powerful family in the town." She laughs when she says this. One uncle ran the town’s book store. Another had a marble business. Her father was the town lawyer. "He specialized in divorce and crime," she says with an impish smile. "Sometimes he let me come with him to court but usually he didn’t like to talk about business, though I was very curious."
The Checkers guy’s offer to get her started in modeling was well received by Claudia.
"In school I was very shy. I wasn’t at all the star," she says. "And there was this one girl who was very popular, and all everyone talked about was how she was going to modeling school. Everyone was really impressed by that.
"At first I didn’t even tell my best friend about my modeling because I wasn’t sure it was real. But when it really started happening it was just the greatest feeling, I had done guess, Rolling Stone. I would be walking down the street wearing no make up, not looking great, and people would recognize me and it was the best feeling. It made me think about the modeling school girl," a slight smile plays across her mouth. "I liked to think about her."
"Excuse me? Claowdia?"
Three extremely excited teen age girls clutching a camera request a picture. They’re from Madrid.
They cluster around her and I get them centered in the view finder. Three brunettes and a blonde. She puts her arms around their shoulders and cocks her ahead slightly to the right. She smiles faintly. Claudia Schiffer’s mouth isn’t really built for facetious smiles, but this one is somewhat less that totally sincere.
They thank her profusely and leave. One turns as she walks away and says, with a degree of passion and a kind of feminine grace that strikes me as very European, "You are so beautiful."
That was nice of you to say yes, I tell her.
"When people ask to take my picture, I always say yes," she says.
There are exceptions to this rule, such as the man who rang her parent’s doorbell stark naked and announced he had a present for Claudia ("I wonder what that was," and she rolls her eyes), or the Majorca Daily News, a small British newspaper on the island where she summers who hound her so obsessively that she had move her family’s home there to a remote cliff and generally is seen in public holding a newspaper over her head like some badly sunburned tourist, such are the vociferousness of the local photographer’s attentions.
"He knows me inside out," she says of David Copperfield. "And vice-versa."
Copperfield is based in New York and Claudia in Monaco, though listening to her talk, Monaco is mostly where she pays taxes and stores her clothes.
"I’m super focused on work right now," she says. "And he understands that. He understands that when you have a passion, you do whatever it takes. I’ve had a relationship with a business man and he had such a different life than mine. That was a problem."
Since both of them are on the road so often, they try and reserve their time together in New York for being with each other, "mostly seeing movies and going out to restaurant," she says.
"Traveling has always been a problem," in her past relationships. "I used to go two or three months when I didn’t know when I’d see my boyfriend. Back then I didn’t care, but now I don’t let that happen."
And what is an allowable amount of time apart?
"I think two or three weeks is okay. In fact it can be good. You start to really appreciate the other person. If you see someone everyday you sometimes forget what’s great about the person. You come home every night and there they are ad there’ is a danger of taking things for granted.. But I think relationships should never lack excitement, unpredictability, surprises. I’m very flexible. I love to be surprised."
All of which brigs to mind her next film, in which she pays the adulteress?
"He thought that script was interesting," she says.
We talk a meander through the museum. One minute we’re walking through a Long house from Borneo, the next we’re standing in front of a huge marble statue of Apollo, nude, his penis chipped off. For a long time she is just another tourist with a backpack, but once she is recognized it seems to set off a chain reaction. People come closer to see what the excitement is about. I take picture after picture. She offers the same patient smile. The girls are in a kind of awe, and the boys have a sheepish but lascivious look. For some reason they nearly all come from Latin countries– Chile, Spain, Mexico, Italy. At one point we find ourselves in a particularly crowded part of the museum. She is recognized and the density of the crowd become a little strange. All eyes turn to her, and I feel a tiny discomfort, as though a riot might at any moment break out.
Eventually we find ourselves in an out of the way alcove, sipping diet cokes next to a huge glass window that faces Central Park.
This week she will be nestling with David, seeing movies, going to restaurants. It’s a week of leisure. "We scheduled it months in advance," she says.
So after six years, what happens now?
"Twenty-eight is too young to get married and have kids. That requires a different lifestyle than the one I have right now."
I ask if she being Catholic and David being Jewish creates any interesting situations.
"Not really," she says. "Even though his family is Jewish they don’t practice it really. But at Christmas we do have–what’s it called again? That thing with the candles?"
"Right! We have one of those. I’m Catholic, but I don’t believe in God."
How about Hell?
"I don’t believe in hell," she says. "I don’t believe everything that the church says. Things happen for a reason, though not everything happens to you because you’ve done something bad. The Catholic religion beats you up and suggests you deserve it. I believe in Karma."
At this point she picks up a napkin from the table and leans forward in my direction. For a second I think she is going to wipe my face but it turns out she has spotted a spider making its way across the table in front of me. It’s quite small. With a dainty thump the spider, and its Karma, are eradicated.
And what about sin?
"I think sin is such an old fashioned word." What’s a more modern word?
"Well," she says, "Vice. Vice might be more modern."
I ask her again about that upcoming role of adulteress, the ambiguity she seemed to like.
So in these six years of strenuous travel when you have to plan an easy going week together months in advance, have there been any dalliances?
"I’ve been in this relationship six years and I’m not bored with him or used to him. We travel a lot and don’t see that much of each other. It has stayed very fresh and very interesting.
"I’ve never fallen in love with someone else during this period of time, there’s been no need for it, but there is nothing wrong with temptation, as long as it stays temptation. There are people who are tempted and then go ahead and do it, they have the affair, over and over and over. But it is also possible to feel tempted and then say, ‘All right, that was exciting, but I’m just going to leave it at this.’"
And what if the other person gets jealous about all these temptations?
"I’m not against jealousy. I think it’s really healthy if it wakes you up and makes you understand that a person is worth fighting for. Unless it’s obsessive jealousy. That’s bad. And you shouldn’t try and provoke it, either."
From this we get into a vague conversation about under what circumstances is might be appropriate, or forgivable, for a woman to have an affair.
"The danger in having a affair is that you can hurt the other person very much, for a long time," she remarks.
How about this, I propose. What if the woman’s husband doesn’t make her come? What if they’ve been together five years, six years, ten years, and the man just never makes his wife come? Would she be justified in having an affair?
"If that’s what’s going on in that relationship the woman should just…" Her eyes bulge. "Depart!"
I heard that in Italy a woman can get an annulment by complaining about just this problem to her priest.
She pauses over this and sips pensively on her straw. She seems really pleased to be discussing the minutia of these things, and I’m reminded of her pestering her father for details about his divorce cases.
Her response is suitably litigious: "How would she prove it?" she says.
We linger a while longer on this hypothesis: The deprived woman.
"Maybe a year, I could see," she says. "But five years? Ten years? On the other hand we are very good at faking things. Would she have been faking it? Would the husband know?"
As for this idea of an Italian woman getting an annulment, she doesn’t believe it.
"In Italy there is an openness about men having an affair. It’s almost assumed they are. But with women, it’s completely impossible. Unallowed.
"You know," she says, nibbling her straw and staring absent mindedly at the joggers staggering past in the Central Park heat, "I was reading Voltaire the other day, Madam de Chatelet." She pauses to spell it and instruct me on how the accent goes ("like a little hat"). "And in 18t Century France it was completely okay for the man and the woman to have affairs. You had to have the official thing happening. But as long as you had the family, everything was all right. Everyone would know who was your mistress was and who was your lover."
And is this your ideal situation?
"For me the ideal is to always have temptations. No matter how much you love someone, I think it’s okay to use to the excitement of the temptation. When you know someone wants you, it’s great for your confidence.
"I’m never bored or used to David. I’ve never fallen in love with anyone else. I feel no need for it. Many people have affairs over and over. But you have to pay. The danger of having an affair is hurting the other person very much, for a long time. But sometimes it’s great to keep it as a temptation."
We make our exit down the grand staircase and across Fifth avenue. She’s walking me to the subway. The wind blows little agreeable wisps of hair across her face. We cross the avenue, and pass an ice cream truck.
"Want an ice cream?" I ask.
Her faces registers mortification and grief. I remember her mentioning that she works out with a personal trainer every day.
"Oh God! Of course," I say. "Sorry."
"No! I love Ice cream. If I had my choice…"
"How close is it, the monitoring?" I ask.
"Every day," she says ruefully. "But that’s what’s good about having a trainer everyday. She’s always like: ‘What did you eat!’ And the horrible thing, though it’s true of everyone, is that if I had my choice I would eat nothing but sweets. As it is I’ve been reading so much about organic food, genetically modified food, I’ve been debating weather of not to become a vegetarian."
I encourage her not to.
"Yeah, well… I do like meat."
"So you never cheat?"
"Sometime when I travel." A little wistful here, fond remembrance of stolen ice cream moments. "American Airlines, they give this ice cream with melted chocolate sauce on top. Delicious. I figure, I need to somehow reward myself for the unpleasantness of travel. But no, mostly I don’t cheat."